Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin


Mühlendamm in 1900, seen from the east: with Fischerbrücke on the left, the old Zollhaus (Customs Office) in the middle before it and Ephraim-Palais on the right, now part of Stadtmuseum Berlin but in 1910 and until 1925 the seat of the Prussian Statistical Office.

On September 25, 1894 Berlin celebrated the opening of the new Mühlendamm, a bridge and a weir spanning the River Spree, designed by Hermann Blankenstein under the supervision of James Hobrecht and Rudolph Virchow. Hobrecht, the head of Berlin´s urban planning department and the father of the city´s modern sewerage system, and Virchow, influential Berlin physician and great champion of hygiene and social medicine, made sure that Blankenstein, himself an indefatigable municipal architect who created most of Berlin´s schools, hospitals and market halls, worked following a set of very strict requirements.

A section of the 1910 Berlin map showing the complex nature of Berlin´s Mühlendamm in its full glory.

The new structure, built to replace several mid-nineteenth-century buildings designed by Ludwig Persius, needed to be at the same time useful, inexpensive, easy on the Prussian eye and, perhaps first and foremost, not hampering the flow of the river it dammed or the traffic on the river´s surface. The new main building, which before that was the seat of – among others – Berliner Polizeipräsidium – became home to Sparkasse Bank and Berlin´s Armenverwaltung (City Welfare Office).

Mühlendamm designed by Ludwig Persius (here in 1887).

Mühlendamm, whose name refers to the city mills which it used to house (by the 18th century there were ten of them, all powered by huge, six-metre wheels), had several incarnations over nearly 800 years of its existence.

It is the oldest fortified river passage in Germany´s capital: experts believe that it first appeared in the twelfth century, built to connect the then independent cities, Berlin and Cölln. Gradually expanded and fortified, in the fourteenth century it got further reinforced when 40,000 oak and pine logs, or pilings, each fifteen metres long, were rammed into the river bed and supported with large boulders, with limestone from the city quarry in Rüdersdorf as well as with massive granite blocs. The water level before Mühlendamm rose by two metres which meant strong locks were needed to sustain and control the pressure. However, locks which could be used by river boats were only built much later. For centuries goods transported to and from Berlin across Mühlendamm had to be unloaded on one side and loaded onto the boats waiting on the other side of the barrier. It was crucial that the functioning of the mills, the Mühlen, which depended on fast and strong flow of water (at 50m³ per second they could produce an equivalent of 500kW or the output of a 48-metre rotor wind turbine!), was not obstructed.

Model of the Mühlendamm Bridge and weir around 1690 (section of the Old Berlin city model at the #MärkichesMuseum in Berlin).

The 1894 refurbishment was not the last one which Mühlendamm underwent before 1945: by the 1920s it became quite clear that the bridge and particularly the road running along it – a busy Central-Berlin thoroughfare – were too narrow for vehicle traffic. Also, the complex network of bridges and passages that Mühlendamm in fact was (next to Mühlendammbrücke it comprised Mühlenweg and Fischerbrücke), was no longer considered to be a necessary part of the Spree waterway in the shape it had at the time. The works did not begin until the 1930s and were carried out as public works under the NS administration.

The widening of the bridge to at least 37 m required demolition of the old 1894 Mühlendamm as well as of Ephraim-Palais: a once lavish, rococo, bourgeois city house which is now part of Berlin´s #Stadtmuseum and used to stand north-east of the bridge . The latter was dismantled and carefully stored, which made it possible to reconstruct the building for Berlin´s 750th birthday in 1987.

Mühlendamm with the main building in 1902 (image by Waldemar Titzenthaler).

By 1940 the new lock of the new Mühlendamm was completed and a temporary bridge secured unimpeded traffic. The Second World War, however, put an end to any further works. Until 1945 when the temporary bridge was blown up by the retreating German troops. The remains of the pre-war Mühlendamm vanished in the early 1960s and several years later, in 1966-68, were replaced by the current 42.4-metre wide prestressed concrete bridge.




  1. Gary Costello
    September 25, 2017

    Wonderful article and fantastic photos.
    Thank you.

  2. fotoeins
    September 26, 2017

    I like river mills; this might have something to do with discovering a variety of mills throughout Germany when I lived there. There’s every reason why Berlin/Cölln would have had mills. Also, usage of the suffix “damm” seems to be a very northern thing, no? 😉

    • notmsparker
      September 27, 2017

      I believe it is more popular in the North but intuition tells me you´d find it in all the places where crossing water was important as such: hence so many of them in Prussia and Brandenburg:-) But I might be mistaken.


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